American Myths Can Block the Real Message of Grim News From Japan

TOKYO -- Reports of Japanese businessmen hanging themselves seem a dramatic metaphor for an economy coming to the end of its rope. Extra guards now patrol the platforms of 26 suburban Tokyo railroad stations so suicidal jumpers won't disrupt train schedules.Americans interpret news about an increase in suicides as a sign that Japan's society is falling apart. But reading an American narrative into the Japanese experience is seriously misleading.A closer look at the statistics is itself revealing. While it is true that suicide rates in Japan are higher at 17.8 per 100,000 population in Japan than in the United States, currently about 12.0 per 100,000, they are not the highest among industrialized nations (like France, with 20.3). Nor are they unknown here -- rates around 17 were recorded in the United States in 1932, during the depths of the depression, when Wall Street bond salesmen were leaping from the roof of the Yale Club. Suicide rates in both countries have fluctuated with employment.Rates for middle aged men in Japan and the United States are actually quite close. American men over 65 are in fact more likely to commit suicide than their Japanese counterparts and American males age 15-24 are twice as likely as those in Japan.What drives the overall Japanese rate so high is the rate for women in every age group, especially the young and the old. (U.S. figures show male suicides outnumber female by some 5 or 6 to 1 in most age groups).Part of this may have to do with competence -- U.S. figures show 25 botched attempts for every completed suicide, overwhelmingly by women. Japan keeps no count of attempts.Still, there is no question that the two countries view suicide differently. There are many words for suicide in Japanese -- for example, "shinju" for double suicide, with modifiers to distinguish one involving parent and child, lovers, or comrades. These can be further refined to indicate the gender of those involved and nuances of motive.This means that Japanese cannot speak of suicide without considering the circumstances.As a recurring motif in Japan's literature and political history, suicide has acquired an aesthetic and moral aura. At times it has been a legal mandate or class privilege. As recently as World War II, institutionalized suicide existed in the young pilots went on one way "kamikaze" missions.The Japanese, then, have long lived with the confusion of privilege and penalty in voluntary death, a confusion Americans have only begun to confront in the debate about assisted suicide.Americans are basically bewildered by an act that seems to them selfish and senseless. Japanese begin with a presumption of selflessness and practical sense -- though it must be said that being spared the bewilderment stage of grief, does not make it any less sad for suicide survivor, in a family or in a nation.An 1985 incident illustrates this point. A Japanese woman waded into the ocean in Santa Monica with her four-year-old son, attempting double suicide, "boshi shinju." She was forcibly rescued -- and labeled a murderer. Japanese, for their part, were more shocked by the American public's lack of sympathy than by the women's behavior.Americans often point to the greater social legitimacy of suicide in Japan as a sign that the Japanese do not value individual life. The difference in public response to suicide, however, suggests the opposite.Americans are particularly willing to condemn suicide by a public figure who avoids exposure by doing so. American feel these people should go down in flames fighting for their dignity. Later, they can seek forgiveness or redemption -- by writing their memoirs, for example.In such cases, Japan would seem to accord the individual greater value by accepting voluntary death as a privilege, if not a right, and considering public needs only second. Had Vincent Foster been a Japanese bureaucrat, his suicide would surely not still be circling in mystery.The suicides that make news serve the same purpose as slips in the tectonic plates that are thought to reduce the possibility of an earthquake. The suicides are in effect sacrifices intended to preserve the group. When the president of a failing company hanged himself last month, he left a note asking that his insurance money be used to pay the company's debts and keep the business solvent. (And this can happen because Japanese insurance policies pay in the case of suicide if the policy is over one year old.)The recent suicides of Japanese bureaucrats, shocking because they hold such high rank, may well have the same effect on the Japanese political system. These individuals sacrificed themselves in order to preserve their institutions, but by admitting failure and accepting responsibility they will hasten the reform of those institutions.Kitasei is a Tokyo-based freelancer who writes for Asahi Shinbun among other publications.


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